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Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death

Marc Leepson. Stackpole, $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8117-1749-6

In early 1966, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones briefly took a backseat to the number one hit “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” Barry Sadler’s unabashed paean to America’s fighting men during the early, optimistic days of the Vietnam War. Historian Leepson (What So Proudly We Hailed) recounts how Sadler, who lived a hardscrabble life in Colorado before finding direction in the military, wrote the song during his Army Special Forces medical training, polishing it off in a latrine. After a short tour of duty in Vietnam, Sadler hit the road, becoming a one-man “recruiter” for the Green Berets and the war. He had only middling talent and was ill at ease with a performer’s life, and he fell into a nostalgia-tour existence punctuated by poorly received songs that never duplicated his one-hit wonder. He eked out a living as a pulp fiction writer, but his penchant for alcohol, women, and bad company set him spiraling, and eventually he committed murder. Sadler evaded serious jail time but met a bloody end in Guatemala. Leepson mines the recollections of Sadler’s family, friends, and business associates to produce a compelling period piece about a Vietnam veteran who remained a true believer in the war to the end. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power

Thomas J. Wright. Yale Univ., $27.50 (288p) ISBN 978-0-300-22328-6

This book on foreign affairs is a bracing antidote to simplistic thinking about complex policies. Wright, a Brookings Institute fellow, takes his title from F.D.R.’s pledge, prior to the American entry into WWII, to use “all measures short of war” to defeat fascism. This tightly reasoned analysis argues that the U.S. must find a delicate way to counter rivals such as China, Iran, and Russia while not overreacting to their attempts to influence policy in their own regions. Wright espouses the doctrine of “responsible competition,” which recognizes that nations will compete and proposes that, if the competition is measured and rational, the parties can avoid armed conflict. Russia and China’s recent actions, he acknowledges, are problematic, but a policy of reasonable competition would prevent inadvertent escalation. With economic and political cooperation between nations on the decline and nationalism on the rise, Wright warns that it is more important than ever for the U.S. to adopt a firm foreign policy and prevent global conflict from spreading. The difficulty lies in defining “responsible competition,” which each power can interpret differently. The author assumes countries will act rationally, but history argues the opposite. This is no casual read, but it raises issues that can’t be ignored. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Jim Al-Khalili. Picador, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-250-10963-7

British theoretical physicist Al-Khalili collects a wide array of easily digestible, information-packed essays from researchers writing on various aspects of the search for extraterrestrial life. Collectively, they approach the topic from all conceivable angles. For example, Monica Grady surveys “The Search for Life on Mars,” Ian Stewart covers “Aliens in Science Fiction Writing,” Dallas Campbell and Chris French discuss sightings and encounters, and Nick Lane investigates “How Life Got Started on Earth.” The information, which may be unfamiliar to many, is presented clearly and matter-of-factly. The authors pose both physical and philosophical questions, often answering them differently or from different perspectives across essays grouped loosely by theme. All this information certainly sparks the imagination, but this collection is unquestionably scientific, and much of its mind-bending effect is due to corrections of common misconceptions. The resulting picture of the complexities of current thought on extraterrestrial life illuminates just how much we still have to discover and just how comfortable we are considering our own natures and the possibility of encountering life that we may not understand. Al-Khalili’s collection is efficient and factual but never dry; it’s an excellent primer on various concepts and aspects of potential alien life, and the consequences of such an earth-shattering discovery. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria

Wendy Pearlman. Custom House, $24.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-265461-8

Pearlman (Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement), a Northwestern University professor of political science specializing in the Middle East, collects powerful firsthand accounts from Syrians displaced by the ongoing civil war. In the introduction, Pearlman remarks that she and others initially doubted the Arab Spring would ever reach Syria, a sentiment repeated throughout. The book cannot cover the perspective of all Syrians, Pearlman acknowledges, but it does accomplish the goal of humanizing those interviewed, showing them simply as people rather than either victims or security threats. The book is divided into eight sections, with the first, “Authoritarianism,” dealing with Syria before the protests. After part four, “Crackdown,” the stories start to feel relentless in their despair—at one point, an interviewee says, “It had been so long since I heard someone died from natural causes”—but one would be hard pressed to call this a fault. It’s unsurprising to see the anger not just toward Syrian president Bashar al-Assad but also toward the international community, with its many “red lines” for Assad crossed and ignored. Nonetheless, the book is filled with hope, informed by an understanding of the unity possible in spite of the discord sowed by Assad. Agent: Ayesha Pande, Ayesha Pande Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia

Gerda Saunders. Hachette, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-316-50262-7

Saunders (Blessings on the Sheep Dog) writes bravely about her early-onset dementia diagnosis, and nicely bridges the intensely personal experience of her failing mind with examinations of neurological science. Saunders, who emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa in 1984, includes “Dementia Field Notes” sidebars throughout the book that record ever-worsening daily struggles. These stand in contrast with the main text, in which she explores the essence of self, identity, and memories. Her evocative writing shows her to be a researcher and craftswoman, and to the reader her faculties seem undiminished. Saunders reflects on more than 60 years as a life-affirming dividual, an anthropology term that acknowledges that deep connections come from communal bonds continually established throughout a lifetime. She writes about her loving family life in her formative years as a white South African during apartheid, the cross-cultural experience of a new life in the U.S., and the challenges of parenting and academic life. Saunders draws on all of these experiences to guide readers through a primer on neuroscience, the unreliability of memory, and even the place of humans in the cosmos. Her discussion of whether and when to pursue assisted suicide is smart and does not diminish the hopeful voice of a self-described “Doña Quixote” as she fights her mental descent with dignity. (June)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City

Brandon Harris. Amistad, $15.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-241564-6

In this fascinating mishmash of a memoir, filmmaker and critic Harris grapples with the contradictions of gentrified Brooklyn, tossing film reviews, history, journalism, and a healthy dose of bile into his lumpy mix. Harris, an upper-middle-class art-school student from Cincinnati, moved to New York City to pursue auteur ambitions and landed in predominantly African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant. Harris, who’s black, was struck by the gulf between gentrifiers and gentrified as well as his increasing unease over his own precarious foothold among the privileged. Harris’s bold attempt to connect Brooklyn gentrification to the national plight of the African-American underclass falls short, in large part because his primary contact with Bed-Stuy natives is buying nickel bags of marijuana. He never convincingly portrays other people in his life. But many other sections of this disjointed hybrid sparkle, and his lengthy vivisections of Spike Lee and Lena Dunham are particular highlights. The non–Bed-Stuy material features his best writing, but his inclusion of so much of it—most puzzlingly a Mississippi detour—further dissipates the central narrative. Despite the unevenness, this memoir provides hard-won insights into the divided loyalties of middle-class African-Americans, and a convincing description of a 21st-century New York City where only the rich can thrive. (June)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash

Richard Lourie. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-312-53808-8

In the latest saga of corruption and geopolitics from Lourie (Sakharov: A Biography), he proves a master chronicler of modern Russia. The book chronicles Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, beginning with Putin’s early days as a loyal KGB agent. Lourie examines the U.S.S.R.’s downfall and Russia’s chaotic postcommunist political climate, which propelled Putin’s ascension from the inconspicuous role of deputy chief of property, to first prime minister and later president. His main argument is that Putin’s Russia will eventually fall. To prove this point, he goes in-depth on Putin’s interest in the Arctic, Ukraine, China, and the Internet. According to Lourie, Putin, like his predecessors, failed to diversify Russia’s economy, relying too heavily on the country’s gas and oil reserves (the latter, he observes, is called a “wasting asset because, once used, it can never be replaced”). He argues that Putin’s lust for power and empire led to the annexation of Crimea and other crises. Citing other experts and drawing on his own expertise, Lourie paints a convincing portrait of a ruthless authoritarian leader headed toward failure. Lourie also exposes the other powerful players in Russian politics. This book serves as an essential primer on Putin and, by extension, Russia—a resilient but ill-fated country plagued by corrupt leaders. (July)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Defiance: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Anne Barnard

Stephen Taylor. Norton, $28.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-393-24817-3

Anne Barnard knew everybody worth knowing in late-18th-century England, turned down a literal dozen marriage proposals, and wed for love in her early 40s after having become a very wealthy woman with the help of former suitors. She lived for a time in South Africa; adopted, raised, and provided for her husband’s biracial daughter; wrote a famous ballad beloved of Walter Scott; painted; and became an accomplished hostess. Her full and compelling life leaves the biographer with a puzzle: how to compress a story that could easily fill three volumes into a single book. Taylor (Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain) solves this conundrum admirably, focusing on a chronological retelling of the highlights of Barnard’s life. His work is enriched by his access to private unpublished source material. Taylor doesn’t fail to entertain, and his book is a fine, easily readable introduction to Barnard that does the work of leaving readers wanting more—more on navigating the difficulties of raising a biracial child in 19th-century London, more on Barnard’s relationship with the Prince of Wales, more on her interiority. This is a page-turning introduction to a fascinating life. 8 color illus. (July)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story

Edwidge Danticat. Graywolf, $14 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-55597-777-1

In the latest installment of Graywolf’s the Art Of series, Danticat (Claire of the Sea Light) tackles a complex subject that reverberates throughout her award-winning fiction. She seeks to “both better understand death and offload [her] fear of it” through the experience of dealing with the deaths of friends and family members, and through the works of writers past and present, from Leo Tolstoy to Ta-Nehisi Coates. She highlights—and perhaps achieves—the writer’s desire to “help others feel less alone.” For Danticat, death is not an isolated phenomenon. Everything in our lives, and in the fiction we read and write, is informed by our knowledge of the inevitability of life’s end: “Even when we are not writing about death, we are writing about death.” Danticat pursues two major goals here, and they dovetail gracefully. In a series of linked essays on overlapping topics such as suicide, close calls, and how we relate to catastrophic events, she both shows how great writers make death meaningful, and explores her own raw grief over her mother’s death. This slim volume wraps literary criticism, philosophy, and memoir into a gracefully circling whole, echoing the nature of grief as “circles and circles of sorrow.” (July)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

Monica Hesse. Liveright, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-63149-051-4

Washington Post reporter Hesse (Girl in the Blue Coat) leads readers on an extended tour of a bizarre five-month crime spree in rural Accomack County, Va.: a series of over 80 arsons, of predominantly abandoned buildings, committed by a local couple. It began one day in November 2012 with four fires in 24 hours and carried on for five months. As hysteria mounted, police camped out in tents near potential targets and a group of vigilantes set up their own operation. At the center of this narrative is the extremely compelling couple: Charlie Smith, a 38-year-old recovering drug addict, and Tonya Bundick, a 40-year-old partier described as the “queen” of the local nightclub, Shuckers. Hesse traces their romance from charming Facebook exchanges and plans of a Guns N’ Roses themed wedding to passing notes in the prison yard after their arrest. Their love totally imploded under the pressure of their prosecution. Hesse offers sociological insight into a small town where “doors went unlocked, bake sales and brisket fund-raisers were well attended” despite its downward economic trajectory. There is something metaphorical, she notes, about a rural county suffering through a recession being literally burned to the ground. The metaphor becomes belabored by the time Hesse shoehorns in a comparison between small-town America and the aforementioned Shuckers, but otherwise this is a page-turning story of love gone off the rails. (July)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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